Providential Preservation

This article is a part of the series called Foundations of Protestant Bibliology. In this series, I will examine the core theological foundations of the Protestant view of Scripture.

Introduction

The foundation of the Protestant Reformation was Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone. It was the doctrine that usurped the Papist view that the Magisterium gave the Scriptures authority in both word and interpretation. Many modern Calvinists and Reformed boldly proclaim this doctrine, yet it in this generation it has lost much of its substance. The men who give the Seminaries their doctrine on Scripture have increasingly departed from the Reformation definition of Sola Scriptura. See the following thoughts of leading evangelical scholars on the topic of Scripture:

“I am not convinced that the Bible speaks of its own preservation. That doctrine was first introduced in the Westminster Confession, but it is not something that can be found in scripture.”

Dan Wallace. Interview with Dan Wallace. 2006.

“I do not believe that God is under any obligation to preserve every detail of Scripture for us, even though he granted us good access to the text of the New Testament.”

Dirk Jongkind. An Introduction to the Greek New Testament. 90.

“It’s true that human beings need ‘every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (Matt. 4:4), but we don’t necessarily need every word all at once.”

Richard Brash. A Christian’s Pocket Guide to How God Preserved the Bible. 62.

“We are trying to piece together a puzzle with only some of the pieces.”

Peter Gurry. A New Approach to Textual Criticism: An Introduction to the Coherence Based Genealogical Method. 112.

“We do not have now – in any of our critical Greek texts or in any translations – exactly what the authors of the New Testament wrote. Even if we did, we would not know it. There are many, many places in which the text of the New Testament is uncertain.”

Elijah Hixson & Peter Gurry. Myths & Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism. xii. Quote by Dan Wallace.

What sets apart the above thoughts from the Reformation theology of Sola Scriptura is the doctrine of Providential Preservation. It is the missing link that connects the original to what is available today. Without this doctrine, there is never a final text because there is no way to validate the texts we have today, seeing as there is no original to use as a guide. The scholars recognize this as a “methodological gap.”

“The reason is that there is a methodological gap between the start of the textual tradition as we have it and the text of the autograph itself. Any developments between these two points are outside the remit of textual criticism proper. Where there is “no trace [of the original text] in the manuscript tradition” the text critic must, on Mink’s terms, remain silent.” 

Peter Gurry. A Critical Examination of the Coherence based Genealogical Method. 93.

This methodological gap is the fatal flaw in any view of Scripture that requires reconstructing the text from extant manuscripts. Even if the scholars can say with a high degree of certainty that a text is original or at the very least early, there is nothing axiomatically that connects the reconstructed text with the original. As noted above by Dr. Mink, the methods of textual criticism cannot speak regarding the original. This means that the textual scholar who wishes to make the connection between the reconstructed text and the original must do so, not on text-critical grounds, but on theological grounds.

The Theology of the Modern Critical Text

Many scholars and apologists for the Modern Critical Text are adamant that text-criticism is a scientific process.

“In practice New Testament textual critics today tend to be Christians themselves, but not always. It does not matter, for the quality of their work does not depend on their faith but on their adherence to academic standards.”

Jan Krans. http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com/2020/10/why-textus-receptus-cannot-be-accepted.html. October 22, 2020.

This is stated as a net-positive, as this supposedly protects the process of creating Bibles from the bias of the scholars themselves. While it is rather foolish to believe that scientists and scholars are unbiased, in adopting such a methodology, the Protestant theology of Scripture is excluded from the modern efforts of text-criticism. This is generally viewed as a positive trait of the methodology, but it introduces a serious theological error: The goal of text-criticism, which is to reconstruct the original, is outside of the stated capabilities of the current methodology. The Church is faced with a serious conundrum as a result of this reality. The modern doctrine of Scripture is one that works from evidence to doctrine, rather than doctrine to evidence.

In doctrine, modern Christians proclaim the following:

2. Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms, obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises

4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.

Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. A Short Statement, 2,4.

“We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.


We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.”

Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Article X.

There are two major doctrines that support the Modern Critical Text. The first is that the Scriptures are preserved in all that they teach, and the second is that doctrines cannot be affected by the efforts of textual criticism. This sounds orthodox at first, but it exposes itself as a heterodox doctrine when examined carefully. If it is the case that “Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching” and that there isn’t “any essential element of the Christian faith [that] is affected,” then the modern theology of Scripture is severely departed from the historical Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura. I will examine this claim in the next section.

More importantly, this doctrine allows textual scholars to do whatever to the text of Scripture without any suspicion from the modern church because the effort is founded upon the principle that doctrines cannot be affected, even if the words change. This is the necessary formulation that must be adopted if Providential Preservation is rejected. Since the effort of the Critical Text is justified by the belief that the previous generation’s text is an erroneous development, the text that was used cannot be considered providential or preserved. In adopting the Critical Text methodology, one must necessarily reject Providential Preservation. This is demonstrated as reality by the quotes above.

Since necessary conclusion of the Critical Text requires the rejection of Providential Preservation, the modern doctrine of Scripture is forced to confront the fatal methodological flaw in its system: the lack of an authentication principle. Since the Modern Critical Text methodology has no concept of Providential Preservation and no authentication principle, the text itself is not verifiable nor can it be established as a preserved text. This is evidenced in the way that evangelical text-critics describe the text itself as one which is not the original, but grants “good access” to the original. That is to say that the Bible is not the exact Word of God, but rather is an access point to the Word of God.

This leaves the modern doctrine of Scripture in a precarious place. The former generation had the wrong Bible, but even so, that Bible is infallible in all that it teaches. The modern effort of textual criticism seeks to find the original, yet methodologically it cannot. Despite the modern text being different than the former text, it too is considered infallible in all that it teaches, or inerrant. This is the Modern Critical Conundrum. In the first place, the Bible of the Protestant Reformation has errors, but not in what it teaches. Further, the Modern Critical Text has many places of uncertainty, but not in what it teaches. Differences between the two text forms cannot affect doctrine, yet the modern text form is better to some unquantifiable degree.

The conclusion of such a doctrine is that the actual words of Scripture are not what give the authority to Scripture. The modern doctrine of Scripture does not contain any mechanism to validate the reconstructed text against the original, and the changes between editions and manuscripts cannot affect doctrine. This presents a second fatal flaw which I will pose as a question: If the words in the Bible are not the vehicle of doctrines and teachings in Scripture, what is? This is yet another methodological gap in the modern doctrine of Scripture. Since the words can change while the meaning stays the same, there is some other delivery mechanism for the doctrines. The only conclusion is that interpretation of Scripture is the authority giving mechanism. This is the substance of the Papist argument for the magisterium, and reflects the same battle between the Protestants and Rome.

“The question betwixt us and the Papists, now cometh to be considered, which of these editions is authentical, that is, which of it self hath credit and authority, being sufficient of it self to prove and commend itself, without the help of any other edition, because it is the first exemplar or Copy of the divine truth delivered from God by the Prophets and Apostles.”

Edward Leigh. A Systeme or Body of Divinity. 78. Emphasis mine.

What the modern doctrine of Scripture should demonstrate to my reader is that it requires external validation. Since the modern doctrine of Scripture insists that “doctrine cannot be affected,” the only mechanism that allows for this to be possible is that of interpretation. In other words, the “doctrines cannot be affected” doctrine is really just, “Our interpretation cannot be affected.”

The Theology of Protestant Orthodoxy

There are a number of distinctives that are contained within the Sola Scriptura doctrine of the Protestant Reformation. The modern doctrine sounds a lot like the Protestant doctrine, but does not share the substance. The major distinctions are in authentication and preservation, which give authority to the doctrine. In the first place, the Protestant doctrine teaches that the Scriptures are self-authenticating. This is the case that the Reformed made against the Popish doctrine of the magisterium. Man cannot authenticate the Scriptures, God authenticates the Scriptures.

“It is a most dangerous adventure to examine, or regulate Divine Truths by human wisdome”

Thomas Thorowgood. Moderation Justified. 8.

Second, the Scriptures are Providentially Preserved, or kept pure in all ages. This is the practical function of self-authentication as it relates to the manuscripts. Before defining this further, I will examine the modern response to this doctrine.

The Modern Critical Text view proposes that the Bible was not preserved providentially in the continuous transmission of the Scriptures, rather it was preserved in the totality of the manuscript tradition. So manuscripts that fell out of use and were not propagated forward are included in this body of extant evidence. In the case of the Modern Critical Text, these texts which were not propagated forward are considered the most valuable.

This means that all extant copies of New Testament manuscripts are considered to be preserved texts, which include texts that do not preserve the original. Despite some of these texts not preserving the original wording, the Critical Text theology states that the doctrines are still preserved in the two most different manuscripts. See this popular level explanation by James White:

“The reality is that the amount of variation between the two most extremely different New Testament manuscripts would not fundamentally alter the message of the Scriptures…The simple fact of the matter is that no textual variants in either the Old or New Testament in any way, shape, or form materially disrupt or destroy any essential doctrine of the Christian faith.”

James White. The King James Only Controversy. 67.

This can be said because the determining factor for this is not the text itself, it is the interpretation of the text, as demonstrated in the previous section.

This modern doctrine stands in opposition to the historical Protestant doctrine of self-authentication and Providential Preservation. If my reader wishes to examine the Biblical merits of Providential Preservation, see this paper. Historically speaking, the Protestants affirmed the doctrine of Providential Preservation.

“Nay, not only the main Doctrine of the Scripture hath been continued, but no part of it is falsified, corrupted, or destroyed…But the Scriptures are wonderfully preserved, as the three Children in the Furnace, not an Hair was singed; not a jot or tittle of the Truth is perish or corrupted…Christ hath promised not a tittle shall fall to the ground. The Word hath been in danger of being lost, but the Miracle of Preservation is therefore greater.”

Thomas Manton. A Second Volume of Sermons. 254.

“The marvelous preservation of the Scriptures. Though none in time be so ancient, no none so much oppugned: yet God hath still by his providence preserved them and every part of them”

James Ussher. A Body of Divinity. 11.

“By the original texts, we do not mean the autographs written by the hand of Moses, of the prophets and of the apostles, which certainly do not now exist. We mean their apographs which are so called because they set forth to us the word of God in the very words of those who wrote under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit”

Francis Turretin. Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. I, 106.

It should be clear now that there are two definitions of original at play here. The original doctrines or the original text. There are two definitions of preservation being discussed. Preservation in the totality of extant manuscripts or preservation in the continuing propagation of manuscripts. There are even two different definitions of the Bible. The very Word of God or the means by which we access the Word of God. The Protestant doctrine of Scripture affirms that the original text was propagated forth in transmission, that God providentially kept the original text pure in the apographs, and that this original text is self-authenticating and therefore we have the exact Word of God today. This means that the text that arrived via transmission to the 14th century was as pure as that which arrived to the 16th century. Thus the Reformed held the view that the efforts of “text-criticism” during the 16th century were conducted using such authentic texts as a method of ongoing propagation, not reconstruction.

There is a reason that the Protestants held this view. They recognized that Rome must be correct about needing a magisterium if the Scriptures were not providentially preserved. In order to examine this topic more thoroughly, I will conduct a thought experiment before concluding this paper. I will begin by asking, “What must I believe if I reject Providential Preservation?”

First, I must believe that the exact original wording of Scripture is lost and cannot be recovered by any available methodology. Second, I must believe that the corrupted Protestant text contains no doctrinal differences than the reconstructed text set forth by modern scholars. Third, I must believe that despite there being no doctrinal differences between the two most different manuscripts, that the modern effort which changes my Bible is necessary. Finally, I must believe that the authority of Scripture is determined by my interpretation of it.

When examined in such a way, the proposition set forth in the modern doctrine is abjectly absurd.

Conclusion

The discussion of textual criticism becomes simple when examined at a doctrinal level. Without Providential Preservation, the modern doctrine of Scripture leaves the church without any discernable Bible, just a product that gives the people of God “good access” to the Bible. This is reconciled by proposing that “doctrines cannot be affected” regardless of textual variation. As a result, the method of authentication for Scripture shifts from Scripture itself to man’s interpretation of Scripture. This is clearly not the historic Protestant view, and when examined in substance, bears remarkable resemblance to that of the Papists.

There is a reason this doctrine is defined in the first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith and London Baptist Confession of Faith. It is the fundamental component of Sola Scriptura that all doctrines are established upon. If the Scriptures are not Providentially Preserved, than the church is left to her interpretation of the Scriptures alone, which inevitably produces infinite variations of what Christianity even is. If one were to survey the state of the modern church, they will indeed find that this is exactly the case. The doctrine of inerrancy, in rejecting Providential Preservation of the words of Scripture, has created the semblance of an orthodox doctrine without any of the substance. It outsources the Bible’s authority to man over and above the Scriptures themselves. There is one simple conclusion that must be drawn from the theology of Scripture and also plain observation – without Providential Preservation and self-authentication, there is no discernable Bible and thus no discernable Christ and thus no discernable Christianity. Any claims to the authority of Scripture completely fall flat without these doctrines.

One thought on “Providential Preservation

  1. A good analysis of the Bibliology behind the Critical Text. It is not Protestant. It is Romish. Would that all the so called ‘Reformed’ churches today realized this plain fact.

    Liked by 1 person

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